‘I have run out of petrol:’ Leadership burnout increases as pandemic demands mental health

Leadership burnout is on the rise as the pandemic takes its toll on mental health.Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Workers turn to them for support, customers trust them to get answers, companies lean on them in times of crisis.

But while the pandemic stretches relentlessly, experts say the endless demands on business executives are pushing some to the brink of burnout.

Stress, insecurity and long working hours cause malaise among many managers. It is a condition that – if not controlled long enough – can manifest itself as fatigue, disengagement, depression and burnout, they say.

“Leaders are under tremendous strain,” said Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks.

“When the pandemic started, we saw the adrenaline kick in, the decisions were made quickly and the work was done,” she says. “But it has been relentless. Leaders are exhausted.”

It is not just those responsible who are hitting a wall 22 months, five waves and several variants of the COVID-19 pandemic.

New research has found an extreme level of exhaustion among many Canadian workers from bottom to top. Many say they are more stressed now than during initial shutdowns.

Significant front-line employees from nurses to grocery store clerks have faced countless infection risks. Others face precarious employment without sick days or unemployment benefits. Some have lost their jobs altogether and are struggling to pay rent and buy food.

Compared to these hardships, some may be quick to dismiss leaders’ challenges.

Yet many have reported an increase in fatigue and mental health since the beginning of the pandemic.

Supervisors, low-ranking executives, small business owners and executives are struggling with increasing demands and increasing workloads.

Many spend extra hours keeping things running while providing support and encouragement to the workers.

“Business leaders are supposed to be cheerleaders,” said Mike Johnston, president and CEO of Halifax software company Redspace.

“But we’ve been trying to tumble and turn and get through this for so long now. I’ve run out of gas.”

For some managers, the inability to offer more security and support to employees is what keeps them awake at night.

“When you’re in charge of a group of people, you want all the answers,” says Barry Taylor, chief operating officer of The Ballroom, a large entertainment venue in downtown Toronto.

“But you do not, and you just feel helpless and burnt out.”

Experts say that pandemic fatigue in the late stages takes a heavy toll on many leaders, and some go in the direction of burnout.

Symptoms can include emotional exhaustion, detachment, loss of motivation and reduced efficiency – all of which can have a ripple effect on an entire workplace, they say.

“It’s exhausted leaders leading exhausted teams,” says Jennifer Moss, a Waterloo, Ont.-based workplace consultant and author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It.

“Managers try to be stoic and demonstrate strength and security to their employees when many do not feel it themselves.”

Pandemic burnout is not unique to managers, but she says there are particular stressors that those responsible face.

“It can be more insulating at the top,” Moss says. “Senior executives and executives can sometimes feel very alone.”

There is also a perception that because people in management positions “make the big bucks”, they should be prepared to handle the extra responsibilities and stress, she says.

“We sometimes forget that there is a human being behind that role, and no matter how much they get paid, how much they earn, it does not solve the grief and the pain and the stress they have to deal with,” Moss says.

The perception that managers should show unwavering leadership and steadfast support from their employees may increase the fear of seeking help, experts say.

“There’s a clear stigma,” says Chantal Hervieux, associate professor of strategy at Saint Mary’s University’s Sobey School of Business and director of the school’s MBA program and Center for Leadership Excellence.

“There is less acceptance for leaders to talk about mental health issues.”

Leaders are expected to have control, have the answers and be supportive of their team members, she says.

Despite the pandemic’s almost constant uncertainty and upheaval, these expectations have remained the same – or increased, says Hervieux.

“Canadian business leaders are working hard to keep things going, but some are suffering,” she says. “They’re paying a price for mental health, and we need to talk about it.”

The challenge of trying to lead during the pandemic is supported by research.

A survey conducted by LifeWorks and Deloitte Canada released last summer found that 82 percent of senior executives reported feeling exhausted.

The study showed that the two biggest stressors were an increase in work volume compared to pre-pandemic levels and the desire to provide adequate support for staff well-being.

More than half of respondents said they were considering leaving their roles.

“I’ve chatted with other CEOs and there seems to be a shift,” Johnston told Redspace. “There are a number of founders who want to get out there to quit. The fun of hunting is not balanced against the stress of it.”

Yet, despite some of the unique pressures that managers face, burnout seems to affect all workers.

A new Bromwich + Smith survey conducted by Angus Reid found that more than 70 percent of respondents are concerned about their physical and mental health, including sleep problems, fear of COVID-19 and burnout.

Another study conducted by Canada Life found a high level of burnout among Canadian workers. The study conducted by Mental Health Research Canada showed that more than a third of all working Canadians feel burnt out.

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